Time to Pull the Plug on MOX

Some things never seem to change, sometimes to the detriment of the U.S. taxpayer. Allowing parochial interests to trump national ones is a Washington tradition that lives on. Case in point: this week Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) placed a “hold” on the nomination of Dr. Ernest Moniz, a well-respected MIT professor and former Undersecretary of Energy, to be the next head of the Department of Energy (DOE). The reason? The senator is concerned about administration plans to reduce the budget request for the plutonium fuel program at the Savannah River Site in South Carolina known as MOX.

The MOX program began with noble purposes. It was a joint commitment by Russia and the United States to dispose of dozens of tons of weapons plutonium from excess stocks at the end of the Cold War. The plan was to blend the plutonium with standard nuclear power plant fuel (low-enriched uranium) to create a “mixed oxide” (hence MOX) fuel for use in civilian power plants. Akin to the “Megatons to Megawatts” program that converted significant amounts of bomb-grade uranium for electricity, the MOX program hoped to do the same for plutonium. The goal was to derive benefits from some of the most deadly materials on the planet while simultaneously “de-weaponizing” it. Truly a “swords to plowshares” approach, right?

But the MOX program soon ran into the realities and complexities of implementing such a large, complex and unproven technology. Costs rose each year, milestones slipped and the “customers” for the product did not materialize – not one nuclear power plant utility signed up to take the fuel. Today, the MOX program is among a number of monuments to DOE mismanagement and cost escalation. Lucky for us, there are other ways to manage and secure the plutonium until we devise a better plan for dealing with the material. But Senator Graham doesn’t see it that way. According to the Global Security Newswire, Graham stated:

“When it comes to lowering costs, count me in,” Graham said to Anne Harrington, deputy administrator for defense nuclear nonproliferation at the Energy Department’s National Nuclear Security Administration, at a budget hearing Tuesday. “When it comes to studying another way to do it, count me out.… We’re halfway through,” Graham said to Harrington. “There is no other way to do it.”

For its part, the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), stated that the current budget environment demands that we “step back and review all available options.” Given its wiliness to spend serious tax-payer dollars on seemingly dead-end project in the past, when the NNSA sounds reasonable and cost-aware, we know something is truly up.

MOX has not realized its original purpose. There are alternatives to pursue. The time has come to stop throwing good money after bad. Dr. Moniz understands the science and policy implications of programs like MOX. If they allow him a fair and thorough hearing, the Senate will benefit. Moniz testimony could help the Senate make the right choice and jump off the rails that have kept the U.S. on the MOX train for far too long.

Comments

This has nothing to do with

This has nothing to do with being overbudget. MOX is lucky it's not more over budget than it already is with the regulation and unneeded rules from the NNSA. ALL the fault of MOX's problems lie with the NNSA and it's out of touch DC leadership. This is not about the fuel or commercial generation, it's about irreversibly getting rid of 34 MT of surplus weapons grade plutonium. What if the Tsarnaev brothers would have had 2kg of this stuff? Would we be talking about cost? No, we dont have a problem with taking care of deadbeats who dont want to work by giving them foodstamps and Obamaphones but we can't get rid of the most dangerous material on this planet and protect our country. You and I both know that the alternatives will be MORE costly and don't line up with other facilities schedules or operational readiness, not to mention that will not satisfy the irreversible disposal of plutonium. No more studying needs to be done. Why Poneman wants to sabotage the agency's own project makes no sense. It's ALL political. It's bending SRS and SC over the knee of this neo-liberal president who will retaliate against anyone who doesn't support him. And to say there's no customer is an outright lie. If NNSA would do it's part (which utilities dont trust), this wouldn't even be a discussion. Let's kill the 1st new nuclear project in 30 years? When will we stop wasting energy and resources in this country? To just say pull the plug on this project says you have no clue about the irreversible disposition of surplus weapons grade plutonium.

MOX is also a proliferation risk

Thank you for your reply. You have touched on several valid topics. MOX was designed as a way – not the only way – to dispose of the 34 metric tons of weapons plutonium that the US agreed jointly with Russian to “de-weaponize.” The MOX approach does not consider the plutonium “waste” and instead viewed it as an asset that we should derive some benefit from before disposing. In other words, there were those who felt we should simply “spike” or treat the plutonium as waste and be done with it; and others who were loath to just “throw out” materials we had spent a lot of money to produce. MOX was seen as a way to at least get some electrical energy first while also de-weaponizing it.

I don’t agree that we know alternatives will be more. They have not been given the chance and time that MOX has. Also, the MOX program carries with it some additional proliferation risks. It casts plutonium as just another nuclear fuel and legitimizes its use in civilian reactors – a break with more than 30 years of US policy.

Finally, the NNSA regulations you mention may be part of the reason for cost escalation, but I’m not sure what exactly you are referring to – environmental protection, building codes, etc? Other methods of disposal would have to adhere to the same rules, so why not let them compete for the ultimate goal which we agree on – getting rid of this dangerous material so that it cannot threaten anyone.

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